The power of imagination

In NLP coaching practice there’s a process known as Reframing. This is a very simple yet effective technique to use with challenging experiences or anxieties. It essentially involves playing with perspectives by exploring how we feel when we imagine changing the details around the experience. A wonderful example of reframing can be found in Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. There is a scene in which the class is facing a boggart (a shapeshifting creature that will morph into an individual’s greatest fear). Their teacher shows them how the Riddikulus spell can protect them by turning the boggart into something comical: A giant spider is suddenly slipping and sliding on roller skates; an intimidating tutor is transformed by his outfit becoming that of an old lady. By playing with some of the details the children could transform their fears into something funny and have a choice about how they feel.

So, how does this apply to our lives as dog owners? For many of us there are aspects of our canine relationship which can be very emotionally charged. This may be as a result of an isolated incident or possibly an unresolved behavioural issue. For example, having a dog with separation anxiety can create a similar anxiety in an owner (which came first one might ask??). Walking a dog with reactivity issues can be fraught with apprehension and hypervigilance. I have had a number of clients for whom one traumatic event has stayed with them and changed how they feel when out with their dog.

The trouble with anxieties and fears is that they become a habit. We expect to feel a certain way and every time we do our expectation is reinforced. Often, we try to manage our feelings by telling ourselves that we shouldn’t feel this way and we must try harder to be different. But with very strong fears or anxieties it can seem impossible to feel anything other than what we are experiencing in that moment. And, as any good dog trainer will tell you, it’s not enough to say No to what you don’t want, instead you have to provide a positive alternative that you do want. Reframing can help you do that.

Let’s take a personal example. My dog Benson has some anxieties and can be reactive in certain circumstances. I had a very unfortunate incident with him a few years ago which resulted in me accepting a caution under the Dangerous Dogs Act. In all fairness to Benson the man with whom the incident occurred was an extremely provocative and unreasonable individual. However, things being as they were, I accepted a caution and the repercussions of this have been long lasting. The event occurred at a time when other aspects of my life were difficult and I felt generally vulnerable and insecure. At the time I felt a terrible disproportionate fear that the authorities might take my dog away. This didn’t happen, of course. But I was left with the fear, an underlying anxiety that should we have another incident then maybe this time they would take him away. I was also left with the memory of Benson barking and barking while the man shouted at us, my feeling of being out of control and unable to get Benson on the lead as he danced fearfully around this aggressive man. This memory and my fear of losing Benson embedded themselves in my unconscious and have had a huge impact on our lives. As my daughter reflected the other day “Everything changed after the incident with the man”.

And it did.

Over the years I have struggled to strike the balance between being a responsible owner of an anxious dog recognising situations that may trigger him whilst at the same time allowing him enough appropriate freedom to have positive social experiences with people and build his confidence. While it is sensible to be aware of our past experience, the anxiety that became rooted in me only served to undermine my capacity to provide Benson with the secure and confident guidance that he needed.

Techniques such as Reframing have helped me change my internalised experience of our incident. It has also helped access more positive and helpful emotions when I am out walking and falling into the old habits of apprehension or anxiety. To embark on this exercise, it’s important to keep an open and curious frame of mind. We are just playing with the details by gently asking ourselves “What if…….?”   

Here are some of my questions:

What if Benson were a female? I asked myself this one day as I looked at him standing a few metres away from me in the field. The question came to me out of the blue. He was still and I gazed at him holding the thought of him being female.

What if I am a lone traveller and he is my companion? Independent yet together, responding to each other instinctively, working as a team? I imagined this as we walked together on a lonely walk, meeting no one. Just us and the land.

Benson is a lean and muscular Bordeaux mix. What if he were a big but fluffy dog? A big wobbly Retriever or cuddly Bernese Mountain dog? I explored this thought as Benson lay on his bed, ‘recovering’ from the shock of something being pushed through the letterbox and the predictable frenzy of barking which such events induce.

With each question I allowed time for my imagination to work and as much as possible explore my feelings in my ‘new’ experience of Benson:

Interestingly, as a female when I imagined him barking or being reactive, the behaviour became less threatening. I perceived him as more anxious and in need of support. As I immersed myself in the experience, I realised that as a female I had a sense of us being on the same team, looking out for each other, ‘sisters’ together.

When I indulged the fantasy that we walked together as travelling companions, depending on one another and loyal to each other, his unpredictable behaviour became strangely more predictable. I felt comfortable in my knowing of him, I understood him and his ways and felt more confident in my ability to distract and divert potential challenges away from us. I felt less concerned about others and more aligned with him.

As a bouncy Retriever I judged him less. If I imagined a reactive scenario, I felt softer and more patient with him. I endeavour to always be patient with him and hope that I am. However, sometimes I act patiently but feel exasperated, the difference with my fantasy Retriever was that I felt more patient.

How interesting that while his behaviour remains the same, when I use my imagination to tweak his physical appearance or our relationship, I feel quite different. The answers say much more about me than Benson. I thought my emotional responses to him where based on his behaviour and personality, now I see that they are influenced by my reaction to his gender and his breed in a manner that is more distorted than I understood.  In our everyday life together I have no sense of wishing he were female, or that as a male there is a divide between us. I have no sense that I might feel more sympathetic or patient towards him if he were cuter, cuddlier or fluffier. But somehow these prejudices show up in my answers. How can this be?    

Because, I am more than my conscious thoughts. We all are. We are the sum of our experiences. Over the years we have been chiselled and moulded as we make our way through life’s highs and lows. Sometimes our experiences are so extreme that we cannot help but be aware of their impact on us. More often than not our experiences are subtle and their impact goes relatively unnoticed. Our emotional expectations develop as we experience a steady trickle of information being taken in by our unconscious, registering the world around us and how we fit in to it. Our personality traits, beliefs, prejudices, values and ultimately behaviour are all under the influence of this swirling unconscious soup.

I have internalised different expectations of males and females. A strong ‘masculine’ looking dog elicits a different unconscious response than a softer fluffier dog. By imaging a shift in our identities I accessed a new perspective on his ‘negative’ behaviours. All of this lurks in my unconscious but knowing it creates some space between my thoughts and my reactions. It gives me some choices. Benson is not a female, he is not a cuddly Retriever and we do not venture out as travellers into the great unknown. But, all of the feelings I discovered in my mental ‘role play’ can be cultivated and transferred to who Benson really is today. I can consciously create an intention to recall those softer feelings that ease my anxiety and engender a sense of unity and understanding.

The other day out of the blue I thought of another “What if…..?”

When Benson and I had the incident with the man which led to my caution, what if I hadn’t accepted the caution? What if I’d protested on behalf of Benson, highlighting the abusive and provocative behaviour of the man? What if I’d focused on the fact that my dog barked but made no attempt to bite or attack the man? What if I hadn’t been vulnerable and afraid but strong in our defence? I have never asked myself these questions before. The incident and its result were set in my mind as something solid, there was no other perspective, no other way it could have gone. But there was another way. Just the realisation of that has changed everything. I recognise now that I chose to deal with the situation as I did for a number of reasons. All understandable but it was a choice. Had I chosen differently the result may have been different and my perception of Benson and the anxieties I have carried regarding him may also have been different. Just knowing this shifts how I feel towards him and opens the door to fresh possibilities in our relationship.

We owe it to our dogs to recognise who we are so that we can see them for who they are.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.